How to Win Fistsfuls of Cash and Defraud People

This article first appeared in the March 2011 edition of The King’s Tribune

What’s the most soul destroying career that you can imagine? Doctor at a tobacco company? Head of light entertainment at Channel Nine? Opinion writer for a News Ltd tabloid? To my mind they’re amateurs and also rans when you put them up against what’s arguably the most destructive force in western society: the self help industry.

Advertising executives, used car salesmen, Young Liberals and door to door pay TV salesmen have got nothing on the shameless misery bringers who hide their destructive nature under offers of a balm for aching souls. They own daytime TV, command overwhelming shelf space in bookshops and charge hundreds of dollars in appearance fees, paid for by poor schmucks who hope that some success might rub off, which is even more laughable when you realise the foundation of the whole industry is encouraging people to feel like failures.

I blame Dale Carneige. Carnegie wrote a helpful little book called How to Win Friends and Influence People, which can pretty much be distilled down to ‘remember your fucking manners’. This concept was such a revelation to the United States of the 1930s that the book became an instant best-seller and has since sold over fifteen million copies. Not only did Carnegie write the book that helped define the self help genre, Dale Carnegie Training provided a template for every loud man with big teeth who’s come to save us all from our problems ever since.

So why are we so willing to hand over fistfuls of cash to people we’d throw beer nuts at if they started proselytising in the pub? An insight into the mechanics of the self help industry is one of the few lessons that truly gripped me at university, because I was able to see first hand how powerful cognitive dissonance could be as a motivator and how easy it would be to exploit. Another lesson I learned was the effect of drinking a jug of beer through a straw, but that gripped me in an entirely different way.

Our psych class was doing a simple exercise to help us understand some personality theory concepts. We were asked to describe ourselves by selecting about a dozen options from a list of attributes, then we were asked to do the same thing again, but this time describing an ideal version of ourselves.

When we compared the lists three things became apparent: firstly, that the small number of people whose lists were almost identical either had very low goals for their ideal self, or were liars. Secondly, most of us felt that we differed from our ideal selves, but rarely to the extent that we felt motivated to make big changes. But most interesting were the people who believed that there was a very large difference between their real and ideal selves. There was about half a dozen of them and they began behaving very strangely, even for psych students. A couple of the girls started sobbing, one guy had a tantrum and stormed off, while the others completely zoned out.

In the hastily convened debriefing session shortly afterwards, our tutor explained that what we’d seen was cognitive dissonance in action. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when we become aware that we’re trying to hold two conflicting beliefs at once. In this case, the difference in the rating of ideal and real selves was causing significant emotional distress.

So, what has this got to do with the self help industry? Well, when we feel the effect of cognitive dissonance, we try to find a way to reconcile our conflicting beliefs, like the One Nation member who gets on well with his Vietnamese neighbour and will tell you his views on immigration aren’t racist because “Some of my best friends are Asian”. To relieve the uncomfortable feelings we look for excuses, ways to rationalise away the conflict; and we also look for solutions. This is where the self help industry comes into its own: solutions and excuses. You’re not lazy, someone is stealing your personal power. You’re not disorganised, you just haven’t found the right system yet. Buy this book and come to our seminar, we’ll show you how to fix everything.

The first step in the self help pitch is convincing everyone that there’s something wrong with their life, quite often by telling them about all of the things that they’re supposedly missing out on, or are being denied by some external force. Pump up their idealised self image and give their real self image a kicking into the bargain.

Once you’ve managed to create some cognitive dissonance in the unwary, you then offer them a solution, a way to achieve the ideal self you’ve told them they long to be. While Dale Carnegie may have been content to remind people that reforming their own behaviour was a great way to improve the reactions of others, the self help industry is now packed with everything from ridiculously rigid life plans and enormous tomes on avoiding procrastination that take a week to read, through to fictional mystical prophesies and the idea that simply wishing hard enough will bring you what you want.

When, inevitably, self help books fail to deliver their promised gateway to unimpeded self actualisation, the self help gurus blame the reader for not sticking to the system, or not believing hard enough, which feeds back into the feelings of failure that the reader was hoping to escape and leaves them anxious to buy another self help book. Fantastic! Another book deal for everyone.

The dirty little secret of the self help industry is that if their products were genuinely useful they’d put themselves out of business. The fact that we manage to ignore this fact as we add yet another book to our collection is just another example of cognitive dissonance that we have to deal with.

The reality is that there is no recipe, no sure fire plan, no invaluable secret that will change your life and bring you to some imagined place that is somehow better than where you are today. Pretending otherwise is the least helpful thing you can do, but you won’t find anyone in the self help section telling you that.

Lying to Our Kids and to Ourselves

This article first appeared in the February 2011 edition of The King’s Tribune.

There are really only two hard and fast rules in our household. Firstly, Mum is always right. Secondly, there’s no such thing as Star Wars episodes one to three, or anything called a “Special Edition”. And to be honest, the first rule doesn’t always go unchallenged.

For years I refused to buy George Lucas’ desecrations of my favourite childhood movie on DVD, preferring instead to watch laser-disc rips of the original that were passed between true believers. This was how I introduced one of the best known movie franchises of all time to my son and over the intervening years I’ve had to come up with more and more elaborate explanations to dismiss all the evidence of anything that doesn’t fit my definition of the “real” Star Wars.

All of us lie to our kids, whether as part of an attempt to add some joy to their lives, like stories of a jolly man in a red suit, or as a way to avoid difficult or uncomfortable truths.

But how much of our lifestyles and attitudes are also lies to our kids and to ourselves, about the world that they’ll be growing up in?

Just as my young son will one day be confronted with the horrors of Jar Jar Binks and Greedo shooting first, he’ll also be faced with the realities of peak oil and the impacts of climate change, yet we as a society seem intent on continuing the lie that our lifestyles and patterns of consumption are sustainable. How else can we describe our reluctance to seriously address carbon emissions, or the ongoing trend of building oversized houses on undersized blocks near city fringes?

It’s a natural instinct to want to provide for all of our children’s needs – both emotional and material. It makes us inclined to shield them from unpalatable truths and to buy a long list of things designed to keep them safe, happy, healthy and entertained. This is fine for a while but the problem is that we don’t ever seem to reach a point where we admit to our kids, or ourselves, that there are limits to the way we can live our lives.

At a personal level this continuing delusion can be seen in the way that so many of us manage our personal finances. We get the things that we can’t afford on credit and when we can no longer afford our debt burden we re-finance it away by consolidating our loans or by using some of the equity in our homes to pay for our past indiscretions, then we inevitably repeat the process.

Collectively, we are even worse. The housing bubble in the USA that helped precipitate the Global Financial Crisis was a perfect example of what happens when there’s no equity left in our homes to keep re-financing our lifestyle.

Yet in the wake of this disaster, one that will adversely affect many families for the next decade, there seems to be very little desire to examine whether or not our need for continual economic growth is realistic in a world of dwindling resources.

Even those of us who are determined to “do something” about issues like climate change often find ourselves unable or unwilling to do much more than install some government subsidised solar panels, or buy a horrible hybrid that we’re not entirely sure is any better for the environment than just hanging on to our old car. Meanwhile, any chance for rational debate is undermined by people whose investment in the status quo means that they will not countenance the possibility that “business as usual” simply cannot provide solutions for the problems that we face.

What will bring us to the point where we are willing to face the unpleasant fact that the children filling our kindergartens today may not be able to experience the standard of living that we currently have once they reach adulthood? It’s a cruel paradox, the harder that we try to ignore the need for change in the short term, the more difficult it will be to recover when we reach the limits of our easily available resources.

In December last year the Planning Institute of Australia released a special issue of their journal, Australian Planner, that was focussed on our nation’s capacity to deal with the issues that surround peak oil. Worryingly, they found that “current policy and planning prescriptions are simply not adequate to protect our cities from the effects of petroleum supply constraints.”

This is not a fringe issue being trumpeted by a bunch of hippies, it will quite likely define whether our cities and towns can transform into livable spaces in a low energy world, or end up as the dystopian slums predicted by peak oil pessimists like James Howard Kunstler. The challenge for us and for our elected representatives who will be responsible for setting the policies that will define our future, is how to reconcile our desire for a continually improving quality of life with the realities of climate change, energy scarcity and the global financial instability that will undoubtedly follow.

The big question when it comes to this issue in Australia is whether the politicians and lobby groups who’ve done their best to limit action on climate change will behave similarly with regards to peak oil? Both issues have strong scientific evidence supporting action. Both issues can be ameliorated by changing our energy usage to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and neither of the issues will go away if we simply ignore them and try to paint people who try to raise awareness as alarmists.

Transportation, city planning, agriculture, manufacturing and many of the assumptions that underlie our modern economy will all need to be modified to cope with a world where oil is no longer cheap or plentiful. It’s time that we stopped lying to ourselves about the long term consequences of our current consumption patterns and started preparing for the changes that will be needed to ensure that we can give the next generation of Australians a high standard of living.

Outing an amateur

The decision to publish the name and workplace of the blogger Grog, author of Grog’s Gamut, by The Australian’s James Massola has been dominating not just conversation on twitter and on many Australian blogs, but has continued to generate pageviews for the national broadsheet. There’s a lot of back and forth about the ethics of unmasking an anonymous blogger, but I think a lot of it is talking at cross purposes because most of the journalists genuinely do not understand why a blogger would use a pseudonym and therefore begin with the attitude that there is something that needs to be uncovered.

The first thing that needs to be dispelled is that this is about anonymity. Like most bloggers who choose to use a pseudonym, as I originally did, Grog created a consistent persona that he presented via his blog and on twitter, which is nothing like the type of anonymous hit and run trolling that often shows up in comment threads. While the majority of his readers couldn’t tell you who Grog was there were a number who did know, including James Massola, so it’s fairly clear that he wasn’t actively trying to completely hide his identity. So then why use a pseudonym at all? I think that this is the key issue that many of the media professionals don’t understand and why so few of them have a problem with Massola’s decision to make Grog’s life a misery.

One of the reasons that so many bloggers choose to use a pseudonym is that when decide to start publishing their thoughts they have no idea what the consequences might be. Until you dive in you have no way of knowing whether your desire to start publishing will have an effect on your life, there’s no shortage of examples of people’s jobs being threatened or of people being stalked because they’ve written things online that someone disagrees with. When I began blogging my decision wasn’t about me wanting to avoid being held accountable for what I wrote, there were plenty of hints in my writing for people who may have known me in real life, but wanting to ensure that my wife, and especially my young children, wouldn’t end up being harassed by some random nutjob on the internet who’d taken a dislike to me. It was for this reason that the kids are always referred to by their nicknames, Buster Boy and the Troll Princess, and for a long time my wife Rach was simply known to my readers as Mrsdave.

There are plenty of other reasons for wanting to use a pseudonym too, it can be very difficult to discuss intensely personal topics openly if you have to operate under the assumption that someone could use it against you at a later date. For many people blogging provides one of the few outlets that they have to share their thoughts with other people in an open manner and it’s only by using a pseudonym that they can take advantage of this.

In Grog’s case it’s fairly obvious that he was using a pseudonym not so he could hide the fact that he was a public servant, in fact he referred to it more than once, but to ensure that the arguments that he made would not be used mischievously to undermine his professionalism as an impartial public servant. The things that Grog wrote about were all on the public record, which is in stark contrast to the journos who would deny him the ability to separate his professional and personal life, who regularly feel free to base their work on unnamed sources, so a pseudonym removes the angst of having to continually restate the boundaries between private opinion and professional life.

For a journalist this problem simply doesn’t exist, what they write is their professional life and the reality is that they strive for the chance to add their by-line to stories as it’s seen as a way of improving their professional capital. Journos are in some ways in an inverse reality to bloggers as they are rewarded for doing the type of writing that many bloggers fear they may be punished for, either professionally or socially. I think this is a big part of why so few of the journalists on twitter have had much sympathy for Grog and why they fail to understand the hostile reaction that so many people have had to this incident. I can’t imagine the anguish that Grog and his family must have felt when he found out that Massola was going to out him, even though he clearly believed that he was abiding by the APS code of conduct, how frightening must it have been to wonder whether or not this could end up with him costing his livelihood? This is something that most of the journalists do not seem to understand, or perhaps they simply do not care.

I eventually decided to blog under my own name when I began writing for Pure Poison because I figured that there was less chance of running into trouble compared to having people with nothing better to do spending their time trying to out me and pore over the details of my private life, however that was after more than two years of establishing this blog and getting a feel for what the consequences might be of using my own name. The critical thing is that I was able to make that decision at the time that suited me, as I’d seen Possum Comitatus and others do before me, which is completely different to having your details splashed across the pages of The Australian. Perhaps at some point Grog would have made the same decision, perhaps not, but it should have been his choice.

The excuse used by the Australian that Grog deserved to be exposed because he was influencing debate is pathetic, it was the strength of his argument that was making an impact, not who he was or what he does during business hours. It is telling that nowhere throughout this fiasco have the Australian engaged with any of Grog’s arguments, instead they have maliciously insinuated that he shouldn’t have the right to express himself because of his job as a public servant. The reality in this case is that pseudonyms provide the opportunity to speak truth to power and the traditional gate-keepers are unhappy. I think that there is also resentment coming from some of the professionals as they see amateurs and outsiders having more of an impact than they are in important circles.

If nothing else, most journos reaction to Grog being outed highlighted something that perhaps some of us had forgotten amongst all of the twitter banter over the last year and a half. Most professionals in the traditional media feel threatened by the emergence of new media contributors, they don’t see us as colleagues or as a resource to improve their own work but as competitors. They don’t understand why we want to contribute or why we chose to do so in the manner that we do, and they certainly don’t care if our participation ends up making our lives difficult. I think that the ABC’s Jonathan Green summed it up best

so folks just remember green’s golden rule of media: the journalist is not your friend.

Election night drinking game 2010

It’s time once again for the Dave from Albury’s Federal Election Drinking Game, with at least 5% fresh material since 2007.

This drinking game is easy. Tune in to the ABC on election night and drink when any of the following are said:

  • Bellwether
  • Small booths
  • Redistribution
  • Pendulum
  • Eden Monaro
  • Early returns
  • Quietly confident
  • The Australian people
  • Notionally
  • Large booths
  • The door’s still open
  • Too close to call
  • Lindsay
  • We’ll know more shortly
  • Vindication
  • Scrutineers
  • Factional Warlords

If you really want to get smashed include the following:

  • Swing
  • Preferences
  • Balance of Power

The advanced section for seasoned gamers is as follows:

  • Two drinks whenever Antony Green has bought up the wrong slide.
  • Two drinks for a cross to the tally room.
  • Two drinks whenever Kerry chuckles after interviewing a losing candidate.
  • Three drinks whenever Antony says that the computer is wrong.
  • Three drinks whenever someone seen as a ‘future leader of the party’ loses. (This does not apply to Peter Dutton, no-one seriously believes he could lead a Shetland pony)
  • Three drinks whenever a Politician on the panel refuses to concede a seat that their side has obviously lost.
  • Three drinks if you can get a tweet read out on air

And for the truly committed ALP and Greens supporters:

  • Scotch and razor blades if you hear the phrase “Tony Abbott is our new Prime Minister”.

Reflections on PMs past

The Hawke telemovie, airing as an election has been called, has had many wonks reminiscing about PMs past. There is still a lot of affection for Paul Keating from many Labor voters because of his wit, his vision and his passion. While I admired Rudd as PM, and feel that it’s disappointing that a government that actually performed well through difficult circumstances has been incapable of selling its achievements, he never really matched Keating in my mind.

Last night, watching the Hawke bio-pic, the difference between Rudd and Keating was crystalised for me in two moments, their respective victory speeches after winning an election. Both Keating and Rudd’s victories were impressive for different reasons, but after 11 years in the wilderness it’s not hyperbole to say that Labor supporters were absolutely desperate for their 2007 win and so had enormous expectations for Kevin Rudd.

This is what he gave them.

And there was another 15 minutes or so that you can search out if you like. I remember how ecstatic I was when Howard conceded, how thrilled I was to hear what Rudd would have to say, and how flat I felt after he delivered a pretty mediocre speech. Which is not to say he couldn’t deliver a great speech, the apology to the Stolen Generations gave me shivers, but on the night that he defeated Howard I wanted more than dull platitudes.

Compare that to the brilliance of Paul Keating speaking after beating John Hewson.

It’s hard to pick a favourite part from that speech, but I find the overall tenor, his belief in the people of Australia, inspiring.

And to the Australian people, through hard times, it makes their act of faith all that much greater. It’ll be a long time before an opposition party tries to divide this country again. It’ll be a long time before somebody tries to put one group of Australians over here and another group over there. The public, the public of Australia, are too decent, too conscientious and they’re too interested in their country to wear those sorts of things. This, I think, has very much been a victory of Australian values, because it was Australian values on the line and the Liberal party wanted to change Australia from the country it’s become: a cooperative, decent, nice place to live where people have regard for one another.

I think that for Keating it was about more than winning, it was about a vision for a more egalitarian and proud Australia. I wish that Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard could inspire such passion for our nation, we are all poorer for the anodyne, vacillating, focus group tested blandness that passes for political discourse from all of our major parties these days.

We miss you Paul.

(Hat tip to @cooo_ee who found the Keating audio and transcript for me.)

Lessons learnt at a lemonade stand

Today dawned like many others do in Albury during winter, overcast, foggy and cold, which naturally meant that the kids decided that they needed to play outside wearing as little warm clothing as possible. Around lunchtime Buster Boy announced that he and the Troll Princess had decided that they’d like to make some lemonade and took a shopping bag out with them to begin collecting lemons from the tree in the back yard. Eventually they returned, hauling a very full bag stuffed with lemons that they’d been able to reach, and declared that they were going to open a lemonade stand.

While the idea of the kids having a lemonade stand on the nature strip seemed incredibly cute, the pessimist in me thought that we would spend the afternoon placating disappointed children. Nevertheless we set about finding a recipe for fresh lemonade and getting to work in the kitchen. The lemons from our tree were amazing, the juice almost exploded from them as I cut them in halves and it took no time to get enough to make our lemonade.

While the lemonade cooled Buster Boy set about preparing his lemonade stand. With the help of the Troll Princess he made a sign, found some disposable cups and a tin for the money he hoped to make, and brought a table and chairs from the Troll Princess’ room to the front yard. By this time the fog had lifted, the clouds had parted and the sun began to illuminate our street.

lemonade stand2.jpg

Still feeling pessimistic I went inside to phone our next door neighbour and another friend who I hoped could come over and provide some custom for the lemonade stand. Both phones rang out. I managed to reach our friend’s wife who told us that he was still at sport with the kids for another half an hour or so, and while on the phone I heard the front door slam open and the Troll Princess holler “We’ve got a customer!”.

Sure enough, a passing car had seen the kids out the front, pulled over, and bought a cup of lemonade. The kids were ecstatic, Rach and I were a little dumbstruck. Then it happened again, and again, and again. Complete strangers pulled up to buy cups of lemonade, and were pleasantly surprised when they discovered that the lemonade was actually quite nice. Along the way the Troll Princess decided to abandon the heady world of beverage service to play with the girl next door, but Buster Boy remained resolute. Soon enough the lemonade had run out and I was sent to the kitchen to prepare another batch, and then to the supermarket to buy more cups.

It was fantastic seeing all of these people give some time and a few cents to take part in the kids’ endeavour, they represented a range of ages and without exception treated our kids with warmth and respect. I don’t think I can adequately explain how proud Buster Boy was of himself, the lemonade stand was his idea and he sat on the nature strip until the sun had fallen below Nail Can Hill before he would consider shutting up shop for the day.

The whole experience was an amazing reminder of how wonderful people can be, and what good things can happen if you trust your kids and let them make decisions for themselves. It would have been very easy to dismiss the idea of the lemonade stand, the thought certainly occurred to me, so I’m glad that it ended up showing the kids that they can be rewarded for working hard and believing in themselves.

And what you all really want to know, they made twelve dollars.